School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron

Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.

Jean Piaget was born in France in 1896 and died in 1980.  He was very bright as a child and by age 21 had earned his doctorate and had published more than two dozen papers.  His field was biology, and Piaget would be considered a lifelong learner.  After completing his doctorate he continued his studies, changing focus from biology to psychology.  He worked in Paris with Binet developing standardized tests of children's abilities.  While administering and evaluating the tests, he found that he was not as interested in whether or not the children got the answers correct as he was in the thinking processes that produced the answers they gave.  This experience set the stage for the research he did during the rest of his life.  The central question guiding Piaget's investigations was not "What are children like?" but rather "How does knowledge develop in humans?"  He wanted to know how the relationship between the "knower" and "what is known" changes over time.  His approach to research was known as the clinical method.  With the clinical method, a researcher poses questions or problems to children and then observes how the children go about finding a solution.

One of the things Piaget observed with his work was that as children grew older they become brighter (quantitative) and their answers were qualitatively different ‑ older children knew more and were also capable of mental manipulations not available to younger kids.  He used this in his research ‑ the changing thought patterns in children ‑ he first studied his own children, then thousands of others.

Piaget saw cognitive development as the result of two basic biological characteristics that remain constant throughout development ‑ organization and adaptation.  Organization is the building of simpler processes such as seeing, touching, naming things into higher mental structures.  Adaptation is the adjustment that happens in the individual as a result of interaction with environment.

First of Piaget's stages is sensorimotor ‑ age birth to two years.
1) Sensorimotor ‑ this lasts from birth to about age 2.  During this time the child uses her senses to discover the world.  Think about how an infant learns about the world around her.  She reacts to the touch, voice, smell, and taste of her mother.  Very young infants are able to distinguish their mother from another based upon these senses.              
During the sensorimotor stage, the child develops object permanence ‑ the realization that people and objects don't disappear just because the child can't see them.  The child has limitations during this time because of the lack of language.  Piaget organized the sensorimotor stage into six substages.  These are explained below.
    • Simple reflexes - This occurs during the first month of life.  The reflexes of rooting (when something touches the baby’s cheek, she will automatically turn toward it) and sucking (put something on or near the baby’s mouth and he will latch on and start sucking motion) are necessary for the baby’s survival.  This is how the baby gets fed.  Other reflexes the newborn has are the Palmar grasp (put something cylindrical in the baby’s palm and he will curl his fingers around it), Babinsky reflex (stroke the baby’s foot with your finger and her toes will fan out), and the stepping reflex (hold the baby and let her toes or feet touch something solid like a table and she will make stepping motions).  These reflexes will eventually be replaced by more complex behaviors.

    • Primary circular reaction - This happens between one and four months of age.  Baby will do something accidentally that is pleasurable and will make primitive attempts to make it happen again.  The pleasurable thing is focused on the baby’s own body.  For example, baby is waving hands around and accidentally puts fingers in mouth.  This is enjoyable for the baby and he’ll want it to happen again.  But the baby is not very coordinated at this point so can’t consciously just move the fingers to the mouth.

    • Secondary circular reaction - This happens between four and eight months of age and is similar to primary circular reaction in that the baby will again do something accidentally that is pleasurable and will try to make it happen again.  The difference here is that the pleasurable event is focused outside the baby’s own body.  For example, the baby shakes a rattle or kicks a mobile and it makes an enjoyable sound.  The baby will try to make this happen again, but again, in a fumbling, not coordinated way.  During this substage the baby will imitate some simple actions of others, such as baby talk and noises from adults and some physical gestures.

    • Coordination of secondary reaction - This happens between eight and twelve months of age.  In this substage the baby combines and recombines things previously learned in a coordinated way.  Actions are more outwardly oriented and done intentionally, not just accidentally.  In this substage the baby will have a goal-directed action.  For example, the baby sees a block across the room and will focus on it and crawl over to get it.  The baby will also start anticipating events.  For example, the baby sees mom get her coat out of the closet and a teenage girl comes in the room, and the baby cries because she knows mom is leaving.  Or the baby gets excited when dad gets the stroller out of the closet because he knows they’re going for a walk.  At about eight months of age, the baby develops object permanence, which means that the baby understands that people and things continue to exist even if the baby can’t see them.  For example, if baby is playing with a toy and mom puts it under a blanket, the baby who has developed object permanence will look for the toy under the blanket.  If the baby has not developed object permanence, she won’t look under the blanket for the toy.  Something that is very common even after the baby develops object permanence is the AB Error.  With the AB Error, when mom hides the toy under the blanket, the baby will get it from under the blanket.  Then if mom hides the toy behind a chair, the baby still goes to the blanket and looks for it under there.

    • Tertiary circular reaction - This happens between twelve and 18 months.  At this point walking has been acquired and the baby can explore easier.  The baby is more active and her world is much larger.  During this substage the baby does a lot of experimental with toys - baby knows that with a block you can stack them up, put them in a container and take them out, slide them across the floor, put them in a row, spin them around,  etc.  The infant will purposely explore new possibilities with objects and make changes continually.  This substage marks the developmental starting point for human curiosity.

    • Mental Combinations (or Invention of New Means) - This substage is from 18 months to two years.  During this substage, mental functioning shifts from purely sensorimotor to use of primitive symbols ‑ to Piaget a symbol is a sensory image or word that is internalized by the child and used to represent an event.  For example, Piaget's daughter saw a matchbox being opened and closed ‑ she later mimicked this by opening and closing her mouth.  The most important symbol for children in this substage is language.  After about 18 months children experience an explosion of language development.  They are learning new words every day and learning more and more about attaching meaning to words.  Children also begin to use deferred imitation.  This is when children see something and then later on repeat or imitate it.  An example of this would be the child who watches dad shaving in the morning, and then later on in his play will make shaving motions himself.
2) Pre‑operational ‑ This lasts from two years to about seven years.  During this stage the child learns to use symbols (taking a box and pretending it’s a house or fort or cave, for example, or making a gun out of tinkertoys).  Children are very egocentric during this stage - only seeing the world from their own viewpoint and thinking of themselves as the center of the universe (the child who is talking to dad on the phone and when dad asks the child a question, nods his head into the phone is exhibiting egocentrism; or the child who covers up her eyes and knows that because she can’t see you, you can’t see her).  During this stage children are also animistic - attributing life to inanimate objects (“the table hurt me” when the child bumps into the table, for example; or thinking of their stuffed animals as real).  Children also have problems with the concepts of classification, seriation and conservation.  For example if you give a preoperational child a container with different shapes and colors and ask the child to put the green circles in a container, or the red squares in a container, they will frequently have trouble with this.  The child tends to focus on one dimension of the object, either color or shape, and may very well put the green circles in a container, but may also put red circles in or green triangles.  Seriation refers to putting things in size order, and again, preoperational children tend to have trouble with this.  When children are given ten sticks of different sizes and asked to put them in order from shortest to longest, they frequently have difficulty with all ten.  This is an experiment Piaget did with children, and later researchers have found that it might not be the concept of seriation itself that children have a problem with, but the number of objects being placed in size order.  If children are given four or five sticks, they are better able to do the task correctly. Some conservation experiments Piaget found children had difficulty with include conservation of matter, volume and number.  For example, if you put five coins in a row with five coins directly below them, the child will tell you that there are the same number in each row.  But if you take one row and space the five coins out, the child will say that there are more in the spaced out row. 
These experiments show that the child’s thinking is much more sophisticated than in the sensorimotor stage, but the child still has difficulty centering on more than one aspect of a problem at a time.

In the early part of the preoperational stage, it is not uncommon for children to have temper tantrums.  We need to keep in mind that tantrums tend to occur when children are tired, hungry, restless or bored.  Children also don’t have the language ability at two years of age to always explain how they’re feeling.  Parents and caregivers need to understand why children have tantrums and take steps to avoid the conditions that seem to provide tantrums.

3) Concrete operations - This lasts from about age 7 to about age 12.  During this stage the child becomes less egocentric and starts to think in more concrete ways.  Children this age are very literal and tend to think in very right or wrong, good or bad kind of terms.  They don’t think abstractly, and tend to be very concrete in their thinking.  For example, the concrete operational child may be helping take dishes to the dishwasher and drop a cup.  He may very well think he’s done something bad rather than understanding that it’s an accident, and in fact  he’s doing something good by helping with the dishes.  Children this age think very literally.

4) Formal operations - This stage occurs during adolescence.  The child in this stage can understand things on a more adult level and can communicate with a wide range of people on many topics.  During early adolescence, children can be somewhat judgmental and still think somewhat concretely, but as they move through formal operations, they are better able to understand others’ viewpoints and ways of doing things.  They are able to think abstractly and understand that issues can have many sides.  They also understand that different situations can have an influence on how we think about something.  According to Piaget formal operations is the stage that we move into during adolescence and are then in throughout adulthood.
Summary of Basic Concepts of Piaget
1.  Children have distinct ways of determining reality and viewing world.
2.  Kids mental development progresses through definite stages that occur in fixed sequence for all children.
3.  Cognitive development is influenced by several factors interacting together ‑ maturation and experimentation with objects and with people.
4.  Cognitive development is a result of two inborn attributes ‑ organization and adaptation.  Organization ‑ building simple process into higher forms of thinking and Adaptation ‑ continuing change occurring in individuals as a result of interaction with environment.

Strengths of Piaget's theory
1.  Shows children actively interacting with the environment.
2.  The descriptions of the way children think is helpful for parents and people who work with children.
3.  Sparked much additional research into the cognitive development of children.

1.  Experiments not controlled.
2.  Piaget often strayed from his questions ‑ let children's actions determine what questions he asked next.
3.  He initially used his own children for many experiments.

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